News / Africa

Kenya Mall Attack Survivors Hail Hero

Kenyan security forces line up behind Interior Minister Joseph Ole Lenku during press conference near Westgate Mall, Nairobi, Sept. 25, 2013.
Kenyan security forces line up behind Interior Minister Joseph Ole Lenku during press conference near Westgate Mall, Nairobi, Sept. 25, 2013.
Hannah McNeish
Last week's attack on a Nairobi shopping mall by al-Shabab militants claimed at least 60 lives and left dozens missing.
As Kenyan authorities scramble to provide precise casualty tolls and explain delays in the complicated rescue operation, stories of heroic feats are beginning to emerge from the horror.
Caught in a crossfire, hiding in plain sight of terrorists with a terrified baby shrieking from surrounding explosions and heavy machine-gun fire, Katherine Walton calls her family's survival a miracle.
The American mother from North Carolina and her five children — two sons and three daughters — were at Westgate Mall while her husband, Philip, was on a U.S. trip.
With three young girls in tow, Walton was headed to the mall supermarket to meet her boys when the attack began with volleys of gunfire and explosions.
A Kenyan woman pulled Walton and her girls — ages 4, 2 and 15 months — behind a flimsy promotional booth that provided scant protection. Walton recalls being in plain sight of an attacker looking down from above, and how one terrorist stared directly at her but for some reason did not fire.
“I don’t know why," she says. "There’s no explanation... We were there and very visible.”
In the midst of acrid smoke, deafening explosions and screaming shoppers, Walton's infant daughter was quiet, sucking at a bottle of milk. But after the milk ran out, the child began wailing. Other women taking shelter in the same place soothed Walton's toddler and 4-year-old, but everyone was frightened that the infant's screams would attract the gunmen's attention.
Luckily, the family was spotted instead by Abdul Haji, a Kenyan man who lives near the Westgate Mall and rushed to the scene looking for his brother as soon as he heard about the shooting. Haji, a gun enthusiast and keen hunter, had a pistol and 14 bullets, but no other weapons or protection. Nevertheless, he remained at the mall for hours, helping to evacuate shoppers, many of them wounded, who had been pinned down by the gunfire, at times providing covering fire to help people escape attackers prowling the mall.
Haji called out to Walton and the others crouching nearby, telling them to run toward safety after they had thrown tear-gas canisters in an attempt to shield the women and children.
Walton called back to Haji to say she could not carry all the children, so Haji told Walton to send out the biggest, and was amazed when 4-year-old Portia dashed toward him unafraid.
“Suddenly the kid appears, out of nowhere, and she starts running toward us," Haji tells VOA. "And I was really touched by this, because I thought she was really, really brave. I don’t even know how old she was, but she looked very young. This kind of gave us courage, when we saw how brave the little girl was, running toward strangers with guns.”
Then Walston scrambled out of her hiding place. She and the Kenyan woman who helped her earlier carried the 2-year-old and the infant.
Meanwhile, Walton's two boys were hiding at the back of the supermarket behind sacks of flour. Walton had warned them via cell phone to stay out of sight, and luckily they followed her advise, because the attackers lured some shoppers out of hiding by declaring they were police officers. She didn't know this.
The boys eventually were rescued by real Nairobi police, who entered the market through a rear door and ushered them outside.
In the supermarket's aisles, many shoppers lay slaughtered as cheerful music played over the mall's sound system.
Walton says she and Haji shielded the girls from witnessing the most horrible scenes around them, and that her daughters now recall what happened as "a fight between goodies and baddies," with Haji and some other Kenyans as their heroes.
"Some bad men came in, and they were shooting," says Walton, telling the story in her daughters' words. "And we lay real still and we were quiet, and then some good men came in and saved us. And the good men had guns, but they came in and took us out and saved us.”
Four-year-old Portia said she wasn't worried when she dashed toward Haji, or frightened by his pistol, because she thought he was a family friend she knew from church.
Haji hasn't had a chance to see the Walton children since the mall shootout, but says he will soon. "I just want to tell the little girl that she is very brave," he says. "She actually is my hero.”
Humble Haji only spoke out about his role in saving scared shoppers because he feared that al-Shabab's bloody attack would trigger anti-Muslim sentiment. Well-wishers have been coming up to congratulate him in public since his story spread through Nairobi, and the shy hero has taken to wearing dark glasses and a baseball cap to escape notice.
Philip Walton, who rushed back from the U.S. to reunite with his wife and children, says he can’t wait to voice his eternal debt to Haji.
“I look forward to the day that I can shake Abdul Haji’s hand and personally thank him for his willingness to risk his life to save my family," he said. "Honestly, I’m so honored and privileged to get to live in this great country [of Kenya], surrounded by people like this, and I know that as horrific as this is, we cannot stop talking about the heroes."
Still drawing attention

A full week after the September 21 shootings, passersby come up to greet Haji as he stands in the now quiet shopping center speaking with a VOA reporter. Eager to point out that attackers who claim to fight in the name of Islam have nothing to do with his religion, he says the memory of a tale from his boyhood — the story of a man who saved the life of a dog, because all life is precious, and was rewarded in paradise — is just one of the teachings about how precious life is.
“We are also taught that if you save the life of one human being, it’s like you’ve saved the life of all humanity," Haji says. "If you take the life of one human being, it’s like you’ve taken the life of all of humanity, and that’s how you are going to be judged.”
The assistance Walton received from Haji and other heroes has strengthened her family’s resolve to stay in Kenya and reject any bad feelings about Somalis and Muslims.
“As soon as I start harboring hate and fear, you know, to me, the people that did this, they really [have] won," Walton said. "Because that’s what they want. They want us to fear, to be scared to go out and do stuff. And I think really seeing our community gathered here ... has been a real encouragement.”
Haji thinks anyone else would have acted as he did during the shootings, as yet another shopper comes up to shake his hand and suggest that he run for public office.

You May Like

Video Americans, Tourists, Reflect on Meaning of Thanksgiving

VOA garnered opinions from several people soon after November 13 Paris attacks, which colored many of their thoughts

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

In northern Thailand, the annual tradition of constructing floating baskets to carry away the year’s bad spirits highlights the Loy Krathong festival

Video Tree Houses - A Branch of American Dream

Workshops aimed at teaching people how to build tree houses have become widely popular in America in recent years

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: peter kpateh from: Liberia
September 29, 2013 3:39 AM
Bravo! Haj, for saving innocent lives from these mass murderers in the name of ISLAM. May Jehovah God blessed you and the friendly nation of Kenya.
In Response

by: Anonymous
September 29, 2013 11:47 PM
Peter, you speak ignorantly. Firstly, this man is a Muslim, which instantly highlights how stupid your comment is.
Secondly, to VOA, this man in Somali-Kenyan, not just Kenyan. Please do not allow sensationalism to subvert the truth.

By the Numbers

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against ISi
November 24, 2015 3:04 AM
The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs